Friday, June 17, 2005 | 11:05 a.m.
In the early morning hours of June 17, 1960, as the fabled El Rancho Vegas on the Strip burned to the ground, comedian Phil Ford found himself in the unlikely role of a hero.
He and his wife and partner, Mimi Hines, were passengers in a car driven by singing legend Pearl Bailey that crashed into a tree amid the thick smoke on Las Vegas Boulevard near Sahara Avenue.
As the flames from the resort started licking toward the disabled vehicle, Ford led his disoriented wife and Bailey from the smoke-engulfed wreck through the parking lot to fresh air and safety.
Although their marriage later ended, the duo's career touched numerous facets of entertainment from Las Vegas showrooms to the Broadway stage on worldwide tours and in television and films.
Phil Ford, whose show business career spanned eight decades and included writing the Asian-themed comedy routine with the punchline "rotsa ruck," died Wednesday in his sleep at his Las Vegas home. He was 85.
Services for the Las Vegas resident of 46 years will be private.
"He was a hero to me all of the time," said Hines, a Las Vegas resident of 47 years. "He was a wonderful human being. He also was a hero to a lot of people, especially all of the young performers he helped in show business."
Ford & Hines performed regularly in Las Vegas. They played the Flamingo, El Rancho, Desert Inn, Sahara, Riviera and Tropicana hotels.
"Phil was one of the top acts when he worked with Mimi," said producer Maynard Sloate, who hired Ford to work in the first Las Vegas play he produced, "The Mind With The Dirty Man," at the Union Plaza in the 1970s. "Phil was a really good actor. He was quite versatile."
In 1952, while working in a show in Anchorage, Alaska, Ford recommended to the producer that Hines, then 18, replace a performer who had broken her foot. He later asked Hines to perform a comedy act with him. A short time later they came to national attention on the "The Tonight Show" hosted by Jack Paar.
The couple married that year and, over the next 20 years, appeared regularly on "The Ed Sullivan Show," "The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson" and on TV variety shows hosted by Dean Martin and Bobby Darin.
Ford wrote all of the material for Ford & Hines, including the little mouse routine performed by Hines and the "rotsa ruck" bit -- meant to be "lots of luck"-- that by today's standards might be consider offensive.
"It was not meant to be offensive -- it was sweet -- and when we went on tour in Asia, the people loved us and loved that routine," Hines said. "Nothing we did was blue. We could do the same performance in a club as well as on TV or before royalty."
The duo got a big career break in 1965, when Hines was hired to replace Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice in "Funny Girl" on Broadway. Ford landed the role of Brice's pal Eddie. The two performed in the hit show for 18 months.
They also performed in the plays "Hello, Dolly!" "Sugar Babies" and "I Do! I Do!" The couple also performed in New York at the Waldorf Astoria and the Copacabana.
They also made movies, including the 1965 comedy "Saturday Night Bath In Apple Valley," in which Ford played a gambler trying to turn a sleepy town into a new Las Vegas and Hines played the mayor's daughter, his love interest.
Born June 21, 1919, in San Francisco, Ford entered the music business at age 12 as a clarinetist performing for Big Bands in Oakland and San Francisco. He worked his way through college at the University of California at Berkeley.
During World War II, Ford joined the Army. He served as a band leader and later landed with the 84th Infantry on Normandy's Omaha Beach on D-Day.
After the war, Ford toured the West as a song and dance man and musician before teaming up with Hines. Over the years, Ford & Hines shared stages with Tony Bennett, Steve Allen, Paul Anka, Ella Fitzgerald and the Mills Brothers.
In the 1990s, Sloate reunited Ford with Hines for his production of "No, No Nanette" at the Claridge in Atlantic City.
In recent years, the duo often reunited to help local charitable causes. In 2002, Ford & Hines took the stage at the Bootlegger Bistro for a birthday tribute to comedian Bernie Allen to help benefit homeless veterans.
Ford is survived by a daughter, Sally Ann Ford of Las Vegas; a sister, Treasure Ford of Las Vegas, a niece Mimi McGee of Las Vegas; and a grandson, Brandon Beebe.